(CNN) South Africa's health minister announced Thursday the discovery of a new coronavirus variant that appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of the country.
"Initially it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday, the indication came from our scientists from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant," Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said, stressing that it is currently unclear where the variant -- currently dubbed B.1.1.529 -- first emerged.
It has so far been detected in South Africa, Botswana and in a traveler to Hong Kong from South Africa, Phaahla added.
During a news briefing, genomic scientists said the variant has an unusually high number of mutations, with more than 30 in the key spike protein -- the structure the virus uses to get into the cells they attack.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant has "many more mutations than we have expected," adding it is "spreading very fast and we expect to see pressure in the health system in the next few days and weeks."
Health Joe Phaahla, Phaahla, Tulio de Oliveira
CNN, Network of Genomic, Health, Center
South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong